Things have been really exciting on the University of Hull campus since January 3rd, as City of Culture started with welcoming the Lines of Thought travelling exhibition from the British Museum. We have an Art Collection here at Hull (it’s definitely worth a visit – though I am biased as a volunteer there!) which specialises in British Art 1890-1940, so there are some great works by Lucien Pisarro, Jacob Epstein, Vanessa Bell, Augustus John, to name but a few. There is also a temporary exhibition space in the gallery and that is where 70 drawings from Old Masters to contemporary artists have been on display for the past few weeks, in a free exhibition that still amazes me every time I go in (and I’ve been in three or four times a week since it arrived).
The exhibition is beautifully curated by Isabel Seligman at the British Museum in conjunction with the Bridget Riley Foundation. Bridget Riley is a British artist (see some of her drawings in the exhibition!) who was prominent in the 1960s, who really wants students to refocus their artistic efforts on the importance of drawing as a thinking tool.
A series of workshops was run with students at the British Museum which saw them selecting drawings from the Prints and Drawings Collection to work with and look at how they were formed as thought processes. The 70 in the exhibition were chosen by students as their favourites and are separated into five themes that show the different stages of drawing as a thought process – this means they aren’t chronological, which is fantastic as you can see Matisse alongside Rembrandt, Degas alongside Picasso, Seurat alongside Bridget Riley, to name but a few. It shows how, despite artistic styles and practices being incredibly different at various stages in the history of art, drawing is a consistently important tool in planning, putting imagination to paper and seeing how ideas work out practically.
Wandering round the exhibition and chatting to so many visitors has given me chance to really look at the drawings and find some favourites! So here are some of my personal highlights in the exhibition:
This beautiful nude is my very favourite drawing in the whole exhibition – I really want a print of this, as Degas manages to make the quickly sketched woman (who was a dancer that was bathing) look so beautiful and graceful through the softly blended lines of the charcoal. This was executed in the later period of Degas’ work – perhaps best known for his dancers, here he works with the same ideas as the series of ten bathers he exhibited in the final Impressionism exhibition in 1886. These bathers were not provocative nudes, but quite vulnerable: they were anonymous, with their faces obscured in the ways they look away or have their backs to their artists. They were totally focussed on the everyday practice of bathing instead of posing for Degas. Here, the dancer Degas sketches has her face turned away, her hair pinned into a bun, completely focussed on her task in hand. He manages to communicate a real simple feminine beauty through a few lines.
Interesting comparison: see Rodin’s sketch of a nude woman, executed only two years later, but which is in a completely different style to Degas’ nude. It shows how quickly artistic styles and approaches were developing at the turn of the twentieth century.
“Drawing is not the form, it is the manner of seeing the form.” – Degas
This Christ child and Cat sketch can’t be ignored – so tiny but so marvellous, it shows Leonardo working out how to slot together the figures of a cat and a Christ Child. He clearly has a go at doing it, isn’t happy so scribbles across it, then draws them separately to establish the proportions and slots them together again in preparation for another sketch. This drawing is quite minimal and shows a distinct thought process. A few years ago the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull had a temporary exhibition of Leonardo drawings so this has been exciting to have another Leonardo drawing in the city. Leonardo is so fascinating because he produced so few paintings, but so many pages of drawings, and they are usually known for being much more intricate than this.
Interesting comparison: A few visitors have also likened it to drawings of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh, which I can completely see and is really sweet.
“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.” – Leonardo
Seurat’s “La Grande Jatte” is a huge painting in the Art Institute of Chicago which shows the beginnings of his ideas about colour theory. Although not strictly Pointillist work, it shows his mastery of blending together colours in a completely new way, searching for a solution to the Crisis of Impressionism which plagued the final 1886 exhibition. Seurat was known as a young man who loved to draw, and this beautiful crayon plan for the painting shows the landscape empty of all figures except for the small dog scampering across the foreground. His mastery of shade is shown by the way the sails of the boats on the water are executed by an absence of crayon on the page. It shows how the landscape was engineered and worked together ready for the figures to be placed into the composition.
Interesting comparisons: there are quite a few other sketches that are preparations for paintings and other works, such as Ingres’ sketch of a nude man ready for the Apotheosis of Homer in the Louvre, and Ruben’s two sketches.
Rembrandt has three and a half drawings (one is a half due to being part executed by a member of his studio) in the exhibition but my favourite is undoubtedly the elephant, which is a star piece. Rembrandt was really interested in wider influences in his work, and used to copy miniatures from the Mughal empire. This elephant, however, was called Hansken and was part of a travelling circus in Northern Europe. Hansken was an Asian elephant from Sri Lanka who could do lots of impressive tricks: waving a flag, shooting a pistol and picking up coins, to name but a few. The skin is so expertly executed and the people in the background marvelling at Hansken so figurative that it creates a really interesting contrast and shows Rembrandt’s mastery of texture and line.
I really love this Matisse – it is so smudged as the artist has kept moving the lines around and changing his mind. This, however, creates a grey cloud behind the final lines Matisse leaves on the page. A woman is seated at a chair, wearing a full-length dress. What is interesting about this is that it was executed just before World War Two (showing how important art was still in the deepening swell of conflict and tension) therefore dresses had shortened and become less restrictive, whereas the woman is wearing a corseted old fashioned dress that could have been from around the turn of the century. It shows various influences and playing with various times and spaces. It is also so simple compared to some of the Old Master drawings, but shows a really beautiful face and graceful woman sat on the chair.
“The drawing is the clarification of thought.” – Matisse
This has been a very quick whistle stop tour of the exhibition – and I haven’t even covered the two Michelangelo sketches, but that’s for another post.
- The exhibition is at the Art Collection until February 28th before moving to Ulster, Rhode Island and Santa Fe. The gallery is open Monday-Friday 10am until 7pm, Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 11am-4pm. Check it out here: https://www.hull2017.co.uk/whatson/events/lines-thought-british-museum-touring-exhibition/
- Most days there are gallery assistants on hand to ask any questions or if you like, give you a quick tour of the background and highlights.
- Get drawing whilst you are in there! There are seats that can be moved around to accommodate sketching, and paper, pencils and clipboards at the desk.
- Don’t forget to also visit the permanent collection!
Follow the Art Collection on twitter @ArtCollectionHU.